Shakespeare Quarterly 54.1 (2003) 111-114
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Lectures on Shakespeare. By W. H. Auden. Reconstructed and edited by Arthur Kirsch. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000. Pp. xxiv + 398. $45.00 cloth; $16.95 paper.
A relatively youthful W. H. Auden looks out from the dust jacket of the present volume. His name occupies the author's place on that jacket, the binding, the title page, and in the Library of Congress details. In an uncanny sort of symmetry, however, Auden's authorship of the lectures resembles Shakespeare's shadowy presence in the plays that bear his name; in both instances the texts that we have are editorial constructions based on sources at least one remove from the unrecoverable original performance.
As Kirsch makes clear in the introduction, Auden left no manuscript of his lectures or of his notes for them. Kirsch has reconstructed the lectures primarily from notes taken by Alan Ansen during the fall of 1946 and spring of 1947 at the New School in New York. Ansen attended all but three of the lectures, became Auden's friend, and was for a time his secretary. Less complete notes from three other students provided material, especially for the lectures Ansen missed. The markings in Auden's copy of Kittredge's Complete Works of Shakespeare gave clues to quotations Auden may have included in the lectures, and Auden's later writings on Shakespeare, mainly in The Dyer's Hand, were also used as a resource. Kirsch makes careful and creative use of these supplementary materials, and the result is remarkably like Auden's voice in his critical essays. It is nonetheless difficult to say how this volume should most accurately be titled. A more exact if more awkward title might be something like: W. H. Auden's Lectures on Shakespeare: Reconstructed and Edited from Alan Ansen's Notes, with Kirsch cited as principal author. [End Page 111]
The achievement, and the problems, of the reconstructive process followed may best be approached by comparing closely a passage from Ansen's notes with the parallel passage in Kirsch's text. With the kind permission of Mr. Ansen, I was able to obtain from the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library photocopies of Ansen's notes from the lectures on the Henry VI plays and Macbeth.1 Ansen was clearly, as Kirsch describes him, an "attentive and intelligent" recorder. By any reasonable standard of student work, the notes seem to be remarkably full, though the words written by Ansen fall far short of the number Auden must have spoken in a lecture lasting at least an hour.2 A substantial part of Kirsch's work consists simply of making fragments into sentences, providing reasonable transitions between sentences, and supplying the full text of quotations read or cited by Auden. Other parts of the editing, however, involve interpretive conjectures that make us aware that reconstruction here really amounts to the construction of a text whose original cannot be recovered. Compare the following two passages from the lecture on the Henry VI plays, the first from a photocopy of Ansen's original notes and the second from Kirsch (10-12):
Gloster wants to kill Margaret but prevented, kills Henry. Gloster's soliloquy 3 Henry VI:III.ii (not the last one: Sh's 1st great. Auden reads it. Richard is big character. Lawrence wonders how such horrible characters of Sh have such beautiful language, Auden not satisfied—he says "Aren't we all [sob's]?" Kipling shows Sh's characters everywhere in Sapphic verse.
Richard wishes to kill Margaret too, but is prevented. He does, however, kill Henry. "For this (amongst the rest)," he says, "was I ordain'd." He exults as Henry bleeds: "What? Will the aspiring blood of Lancaster / Sink in the ground? I thought it would have mounted" (Pt.3, V.vi.57, 61-62). In the same soliloquy, he also says that he has "neither pity, love, nor fear," and proclaims that [quotes lines 80-83].
Richard also has a much longer soliloquy in the earlier scene of Edward's...